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What’s in a Spanish olive?

Spanish olives are a delicious and nutritious staple of the Mediterranean diet. Their unique flavor and texture make them an indispensible ingredient in many classic Spanish dishes. But what exactly is an olive, and how is the Spanish variety different from other olives around the world?

What is an olive?

An olive is the fruit of the olive tree, which is native to the Mediterranean region. Botanically, olives are classified as drupes, a type of fruit with a hard pit or stone surrounded by juicy flesh. There are hundreds of cultivated varieties of olives, but all of them belong to the species Olea europaea.

Olive trees are very hardy and can live for hundreds of years. The trees produce small white flowers which later develop into green fruit. Unripe olives are bitter and inedible, due to a chemical called oleuropein. To remove this bitterness, the olives need to be cured by packing them in salt, brine, oil, or lye solutions. This process also gives them their characteristic flavors and textures.

Once cured, olives can be eaten as a nutritious snack on their own, or used to make olive oil, tapenades, relishes and many other foods. The olive pit and skin are not eaten, but contain beneficial plant compounds like polyphenols and anthocyanins.

Types of olives

There are three main types of olives:

  • Green olives – Picked while unripe and cured in a salty brine solution. They have a bright, tangy, bitter flavor.
  • Black olives – Allowed to fully ripen on the tree before being cured. They taste mellower and sweeter.
  • Dry-cured olives – Cured by packing in salt, then soaked in water to remove excess salt before eating. Wrinkled texture.

Within these categories there are many olive cultivars from around the world. Some of the most famous ones are:

  • Kalamata – Almond-shaped purple Greek olives with a deep, earthy flavor.
  • Picholine – Elongated green French olives with a crisp texture.
  • Nocellara del Belice – Pale green, medium-sized Sicilian olives with a mild, nutty taste.
  • Manzanilla – Small green Spanish olives with a delicate, fruity flavor, often stuffed with pimientos.

What makes Spanish olives unique?

Spain is the largest producer of olives in the world, with over 250 native olive cultivars. Spanish olives have some distinctive qualities that set them apart:

  • High oil content – Spanish varieties like Picual and Arbequina are very high in healthy olive oil.
  • Fruit-forward flavor – They emphasize fruity, complex tastes rather than bitterness.
  • Diversity – A wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors and flavors.
  • Traditional curing – Long brining and fermenting develops deeper flavors.
  • Use of spices – Spanish olives are often flavored with herbs, chiles, garlic, etc.

Some of the most popular Spanish olive types include:


Manzanilla olives are the most widely grown Spanish variety. They are small, oval-shaped green olives that are picked early and brined for a shorter time. This gives them a bright, tangy, citrusy flavor and a firm crunchy texture. They are the classic olive for martinis and tapas.


Gordal olives are mammoth green olives that can be over an inch long. Slowly cured in brine for a smooth, buttery taste. The large size makes them perfect for stuffing with various fillings.


A large green olive that matures to a purple-brown color. Hojiblanca olives have a bittersweet, wine-like taste and soft, creamy flesh. They are excellent for eating plain.


Small, brown-skinned olives with a wrinkled texture. Arbequinas have an intense flavor and are greatly valued for their very high oil content – up to 30% of their weight.

Olivegrowing regions in Spain

Olives are grown across Spain, but the main growing regions with their own unique varieties are:

Region Notable olive varieties
Andalusia Hojiblanca, Manzanilla, Picual
Catalonia Arbequina, Empeltre
Valencia Blanqueta, Farga
Extremadura Carrasqueña, Cornicabra, Morisca

Nutritional content

Here is the nutritional value per 100 g of cured green Spanish olives:

Nutrient Amount
Water 71 g
Fat 15 g
Protein 1.3 g
Carbs 6.7 g
Fiber 3.3 g
Vitamin E 3 mg
Iron 3.3 mg
Sodium 794 mg
Calcium 81 mg

As you can see, olives are a great source of healthy fats, fiber, vitamin E, iron, and other important nutrients. The high sodium content comes from the brining process.

Health benefits

Consuming Spanish olives regularly has many potential wellness advantages:

  • Heart health – Olives provide monounsaturated fatty acids that can improve cholesterol levels and lower heart disease risk.
  • Cancer prevention – Olive polyphenols have anti-inflammatory effects and antioxidant properties that may help prevent cancer.
  • Antimicrobial activity – Compounds in olives have antibacterial effects against foodborne pathogens.
  • Anti-aging – Dietary antioxidants from olives can slow cellular aging by combatting oxidative stress.
  • Bone strength – The vitamin E in olives boosts bone mineral density and lowers risk of osteoporosis.

Just a handful of olives can provide substantial protective and anti-aging benefits.

Uses in Spanish cuisine

Spanish olives feature prominently in Spain’s legendary cuisine. Here are some classic ways they are used:

  • On olive tapas platters
  • In salads like the Papalina
  • Added to gazpachos, stews and soups
  • Combined with cheese in platters or sandwiches
  • Stuffed into meat, fish, poultry or vegetables
  • Included in pasta dishes and paellas
  • Used to make olive spreads and tapenades
  • Added to empanadas, canapés and pinchos
  • Garnishing pizzas, focaccia and other breads
  • Skewered in olive-oil soaked accompaniments

Their unique briny, nutty flavors and textural contrast make olives an essential ingredient in Spanish cuisine.

Popular olive dishes

Here are some iconic Spanish dishes that highlight olives:

Pan con tomate

Bread rubbed with tomato and olive oil, then topped with Manzanilla olives and Serrano ham.


Skewers with pickled onions, olives and chili peppers – a popular tapa.


A cold chopped salad of olives, hard boiled eggs, tuna, onions, peppers and olive oil.


Grilled vegetables drizzled with olive oil and topped with anchovies and olives.


Bite-sized toasts topped with things like smoked salmon, Manchego and olives.

Ajo blanco

A chilled almond and garlic soup garnished with grapes and green olives.

Salmorejo cordobés

A thick gazpacho with hard boiled eggs and olives on top.

Global influence

Spain’s olive growing traditions have influenced culinary cultures worldwide. Through colonization and trade, Spanish olives and olive oil spread globally centuries ago. Today they remain essential ingredients in the cuisines of:

  • Portugal
  • Southern Italy
  • France
  • Northern Africa and the Middle East
  • South America
  • The Philippines
  • California

Future outlook

Despite fluctuating harvests due to weather conditions, olives look to remain a major Spanish crop. Olive oil production is increasing to meet rising global demand. With obesity on the rise, the healthy Mediterranean diet with its emphasis on olives and olive oil will likely grow in popularity for its medical benefits. Research will continue to uncover new potential therapeutic compounds in olives. Genetic study also offers the promise of developing new olive varietals that are pest-resistant, higher yielding, and can thrive in non-traditional areas.


In conclusion, Spanish olives are an ancient food that remain iconic today. Their diversity, flavors, textures and health-giving properties make them integral to Mediterranean food culture. Olives encapsulate Spain’s history, agriculture and cuisine in one little flavorful fruit – no wonder they’re celebrated and savored around the world. So next time you enjoy some tangy Manzanillas or fruity Hojiblancas, appreciate the rich Spanish heritage contained in each bite!